Funds promised until mid-March, but hurdles remain
Like the stock market, the School District of Philadelphia is ending the week on a high note. Now it must sustain the momentum generated by two developments that directly impact public schools and the service they provide to the city’s youth.
First, Mayor Nutter announced a plan to consolidate the services offered in 83 school buildings down to 48. The city will also pay $175,000 to keep programs running through March 17, giving various sports and academic leagues enough time to complete their current seasons.
“I am extremely pleased that we were able to work with our partners at the school district, led by Chief Recovery Officer Tom Knudsen, to save winter programming for the kids in our city,” Nutter said during a press conference on Wednesday in City Hall’s Conversation Room. “It is vital to the welfare of our youth that we continue to offer safe, constructive sports activities in school facilities in their neighborhoods.”
Earlier this month, the school district announced that, in order to close a multi-million budget gap, it had sliced the weekday hours of building availability, and ended weekend access altogether. That plan saved the district more than $2 million. The “Programs in Schools” program now allows for the 48 schools to have extended hours. A list of these schools are available on the city’s website, www.Phila.gov.
The cuts to recreational programming caused outrage amongst the city’s education advocates. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chair of council’s education committee, joined charter school founders Veronica Joyner and Dr. Walter D. Palmer in voicing their extreme displeasure with the plan.
“We are very, very happy to have found a mutual point of agreement to make it work, not only for the school district, but for the children and adults who use our facilities,” said School District of Philadelphia spokesman Fernando Gallard. “I think it’s great that we have found a way to move forward.”
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, co-chair of council’s education committee, was impressed with the way city politicians and school district officials worked the deal.
“It was one of my most proudest moments, when the leadership of the school district, the mayor and Council President Darrell Clarke stood unanimously, enthusiastically and collegially on the same page with regard to the current crisis by not eliminating programs,” Brown said, noting that there will be a school district budget hearing in eight weeks.
Now, it appears both the city and district have at least partially addressed the issue; what happens after March 17 remains to be seen, but for now, all parties are content, especially given the alternative.
“This proposal preserves a wide variety of needed programs for thousands of children, youth and families,” said Michael DiBerardinis, Commissioner of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, who also serves as Deputy Mayor for Environment and Community Resources. “These programs are at the very heart of our work, they are central to the mission of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.”
That mission may have received a boost that will pay off in the long-term. In a second and apparently unrelated development, the school district recently announced that, although its budget gap increased from the previously disclosed $61 million deficit to $70.8 million (due in part to costs associated with early retirements and separations), the district did realize cost-cutting measures which lopped off $32 million.
“Included in the $32 million were recently announced savings from non-represented employees salary and benefits adjustments, curtailing of school building hours of operations, reduction in the number of per diem school police officers and cutbacks to summer school programs,” stated the district through a statement. “The district remains committed to continue to realign its delivery of services to schools in order to achieve the greatest savings and efficiencies with as minimum an impact as it is possible to classrooms.”
“This too is very good news,” Gallard said of slicing the budget gap nearly in half. “We still have a long way to go with not very much time, but I am confident we can do it, and we are working hard every day to identify savings.
“You cannot underline enough the effort the whole team is making, not just at the district, but at the schools as well, where they are willing to work with less resources.”